This was not my first rodeo seeing Ha Ha Tonka; it may have been my fourth or fifth, but who’s counting? Things I know that can be expected from a HHT show: it will get rowdy, there will be whiskey, there will be yell-alongs to songs (after so much whiskey it can’t really be called a sing-a-long) and it will be a good time.
These truths were self-evident at their recent performance at Washington, D.C.’s Rock & Roll Hotel. But before the headliner took the stage, the night started with the always-amazing Samantha Crain, a performer who unleashes incredible energy and power from her tiny personage. Previously, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her play alone with her guitar, but this time she brought a band. And a great band at that; her drummer and guitar/piano player made the music more lively and her bassist’s vocalsadded to already great songs.
Crain played a great set that the ½ of the crowd up front really loved and wanted to hear. The rest of the venue, well, they missed out on a great musician in favor of forgettable Saturday evening conversations. Crain took it well; joking around about just being the warm-up act and telling the crowd that they just must not be drinking enough to like the boot stompin’ beats. Crain and her band let the crowd know what they were all drinking as well, and after their raucous set they deserved it.
Ha Ha Tonka’s arrival was greeted in a way that made it immediately apparent that they were the apple of the crowd’s eyes. The talking in the back stopped and the beer swilling / singing started; the crowd was there for a party and HHT was there to bring it.
It was apparent, though, that there was a minor disconnect between the new and the old. The crowd was there for boot stompin’ and during the older songs like “Usual Suspects” they did just that. When HHT started into “Westward Bound” early in the set the crowd was already fully engaged. Even slower old songs — like “Hangman” — kept the crowd’s rapt attention. Sadly, as has been all too frequent in DC in recent years — the newer, more mature songs just didn’t have the same attention grabbing energy. They were made with a more delicate recipe, their ingredients including more than just whiskey and blues rock. But the crowd wasn’t there for complexity, and their reactions to the new and the old HHT were night and day. The older songs were the soundtrack to an amazing night of partying and fun. The new songs were, just…talked over by an ADHD audience.
Ha Ha Tonka is always a great live experience. Their energy exuded on stage equates to one of the most boot stompin’ riotous shows one can attend. Have a couple of glasses of whiskey during intermission and you’ll be primed for some great Americana blues rock. It is only a matter of time before the new songs leave ’em hollerin’ as much as the old ones.